Concert review: Dick Lee takes jibes at Singapore but also reaffirms affection for country

Dick Lee: Celebrating 40 Years In Music

Drama Centre/Sunday

In 1973, teenager Richard Lee Peng Boon auditioned for Talentime here with a song he had written. Titled Life Story, it had resonant lyrics such as "A life story/That ages with each year and birthday cake". His talent even then caught the eye of Vernon Cornelius, lead singer of The Quests, who was overseeing the audition.

Cornelius judged Lee, then 17, a star in the making and elevated him immediately to guest artiste on Talentime, which meant he would have to perform two songs every week till the contest's finale. It was that the pressure to perform two own songs a week that convinced him that he could make a living out of songwriting. Thus was Dick Lee born, and he became "the consummate entertainer", said Cornelius, who was in the audience this evening.

That is not to say Lee is not a singer to be reckoned with, as was plain for all to see in this show during his assured turns on his songs Everything and Paradise In My Heart. His singing chops, in fact, make him a cut above his fellow hitmaker Burt Bacharach, whose lush, fretless and undemanding melodies are similar in style to Lee's.

Looking dapper and chipper in a Tiffany blue suit and rose-pink shirt, the livewire started off with the clap-happy International Land, his first single in 1974, and rarely let up on the pace in an evening that was heavier on the banter than the singing. At one point, Lee recalled spending an entire afternoon talking to a very depressed Hong Kong actor-singer Leslie Cheung, after Cheung's vocal cords had been ruined by gastric acid reflux. Weeks later, Cheung was dead.

It was a revue redolent with reverie not least because Lee shared the stage with four homegrown greats. The first was jazzmeister Jeremy Monteiro, who reprised his piano pyrotechnics on Lee's 1990s track Modern Asia, a uber-cool dance number that deserves to be better known. Lee then had actor Caleb Goh belt out Stand Alone, Lee's freshly penned song for his upcoming musical LKY, on founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

Then hard rocker Chris Ho, who had not sung publicly in five years, thrilled everyone with his dark, sonorous duet with Lee on Ho's song Deeper. Lee capped that by welcoming onstage his "primary inspiration", his ex-wife Jacintha Abishegenaden, to sing with him on the ballads Still Burns and It Takes Two. How the crowd cheered the reunion of a duo who had begun performing together in their teens.

After this buffet of bonhomie, Lee brought the house down when he invited his brothers John, Peter and Andrew onstage to relive their childhood days on television as Dick And The Gang. This performance of Harmony was their first together for more than 13 years. Their ensuing tribute to their late sister Pat, an exquisite a cappella rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, had some in the audience sniffling.

It was the most curious of evenings, something of a cross between a potluck and a pottering through happy-go-lucky 1970s Singapore, complete with a whirring disco ball overhead. In between, Lee could not resist remarking on the current woes of living in Singapore, to the tune of Fried Rice Paradise. He took jaunty jibes at, among other irks, the Population White Paper, "chicken rice that costs $30" and "a lousy library", presumably referring to the National Library Board's recent controversial ban of two books depicting unconventional families.

But then, he mused later, he could not think of a better "shelter" in the world than Singapore and so Singaporeans who whinge should "just shut up"; this drew loud applause from the audience. After all, he had said earlier in the show, the Government's many national campaigns had given him ample opportunity to make his brand of very Singaporean music known to all here and elsewhere in Asia.

After about 2 1/2 hours with 20 songs, not counting snatches of songs in two medleys, his encore was Life Story, melding into the well-loved Home, at which the crowd leapt to, and stayed on, its feet in thunderous applause.